Being a vegetarian in Azerbaijan
On World Vegetarian Day, Meydan TV looks at vegetarians and vegans in Azerbaijan to find out who they are and what they eat.
1 October is World Vegetarian Day, which was established by the North American Vegetarian Society in 1977 and later recognized by the International Vegetarian Union.
Every year, this day is an opportunity to talk about the health benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle and also about the ecological and ethical aspects of vegetarianism.
According to some sources, vegetarianism first appeared in ancient times in Asia and later spread to Europe.
Some of the world’s most famous vegetarians were Leonardo da Vinci, Mahatma Gandhi, Franz Kafka, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and Bernard Shaw.
What is vegetarianism?
Vegetarianism is a dietary practice which excludes all meat. But it is not limited to diet: vegetarianism is also a lifestyle. The goal of many vegetarians is to protect animal life, as well as the environment as a whole.
There are several different types of vegetarianism, but most vegetarians abstain from meat while including milk and other dairy products, eggs, and honey in their diet.
Veganism is a more radical form of vegetarianism. Unlike vegetarians, vegans abstain not only from meat, but from all animal products (i.e. milk, dairy products, eggs, honey, gelatin, etc.).
Vegans also reject clothing made from animal products (e.g. leather or furs) and products developed using animal testing, and they do not visit places where animals are used to entertain the public. Many vegans, like vegetarians, are sensitive to ecological and environmental issues.
How popular are vegetarianism and veganism?
Although there are no accurate statistics on the proliferation of vegetarianism and veganism in the world, there is evidence which indicates that their popularity is growing with each passing year.
At present, the countries where vegetarianism is most widespread are thought to be India, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Taiwan, and the UK. In these countries, 10-30% of the population are vegetarians or vegans.
Some experts believe that the proliferation of vegetarianism and veganism is being accelerated by ecological problems and the appearance of numerous meat alternatives.
Meat Atlas 2021, published by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Friends of the Earth, and BUND, states that meat substitutes for vegetarians and vegans are growing quickly in popularity. Along with improvements in quality and an expanded selection, meat substitutes are becoming more popular thanks to criticism of the working conditions in the meat industry and the industry’s effects on the climate and the environment. In addition, in some countries the spread of vegetarianism is encouraged through tax breaks on the production of vegetarian and vegan food products.
Vegetarians and vegans in Azerbaijan
In Azerbaijan, the number of vegetarians is relatively small compared to the total population, but it is greater than the number of vegans. No statistics are collected and no studies have been done on these communities.
The vegetarians and vegans that we spoke to say that their number is growing – at least in their personal circles of friends and acquaintances there are more and more.
Agha Gulali wanted to become a vegetarian for a long time, but he didn’t feel ready for it. Then, two years ago, he finally turned his dream into a reality:
“I wanted to become a vegetarian, but I always came up with some excuse. Before, when I ate meat, I never thought about how it used to be a living thing, and that we actually killed and ate a living creature. The thought never crossed my mind. But after the information that I got from my vegan friends and from the internet, I realized that that was just selfish. Once I understood that there’s no need for us to eat meat, that it’s just a tradition, I decided to become a vegetarian.”
At first, Agha’s family was worried about his health, but according to him, after adopting a vegetarian diet his stomach problems stopped.
Agha encountered both negative and positive reactions from the people around him:
“The only negative thing was the stupid jokes. I’m used to them now. Actually, I don’t let anybody make fun of me that way anymore, because I never pressure anyone or make fun of them if they eat meat. The most positive thing is that I discovered hundreds of delicious vegetarian recipes.”
Eventually, Agha wants to become a vegan:
“Veganism is abstention from all animal products. Because we harm animals not only when we kill them, but also when we get milk or eggs from them. Actually, it’s the industry that does that. A lot of vegans think that it’s wrong even to produce milk or eggs on a family farm, but I don’t think you can call that exploitation in the full sense of the word. But I still want to give up milk and eggs eventually because milk is also harmful for our health. Every animal’s milk is intended for its offspring.”
“I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as vegetarianism”
Saadat Shukurlu became a vegetarian two years ago, and she says that even though she felt pity for animals when she was a child, she didn’t know anything about vegetarianism. She recounts that her family kept chickens and it was hard for her to eat them because she had seen them alive:
“I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as vegetarianism or veganism when I was little. When I grew up I started to look into it and realized that I want to be that way, because I pity the animals. It was a purely ethical decision.”
Later, when Saadat became a vegetarian, in any cafe she was always surrounded by fellow vegetarians. Thanks to their support, the process of adapting to a new lifestyle was made easier. But Saadat says that it’s hard to find a vegetarian restaurant in Azerbaijan, and many places don’t offer any vegetarian food at all.
According to Saadat, people in Azerbaijan think that it’s too expensive to be a vegetarian or a vegan. She herself thought that at one point:
“Until I became a vegetarian, I thought the same thing. I thought that I won’t have anything to eat, that I’ll have to spend a lot of money on soy meat, for example. Yes, it’s true, special meat substitutes are expensive. But if you just buy normal groceries, fruits and vegetables, then it’s a lot cheaper than meat or fish.”
Saadat says that if her mother spends 50 AZN at a shop to buy chicken, eggs, some meat, fruits, and vegetables, she can buy a lot more fruits and vegetables and a lot more variety for the same amount.
According to Saadat, if someone says they love animals, they should love them all regardless of species:
“There are people who feel sorry for street dogs and cats and they feed and take care of them, but they never think about how cows and chickens, for example, are also animals.”
Saadat believes that vegetarianism is a sort of bridge between a traditional diet and veganism. She says that it’s hard for some people to become vegans all at once, and so they start as vegetarians. But if their choice was well-informed, eventually they will definitely become vegans.
The first vegan shop in Azerbaijan
One person who made that choice is Vusala Maharramova. In 2014, she became a vegetarian and three years later she became a vegan.
Vusala recounts that, when she became a vegan in 2017, it was difficult for her to find certain vegan products in Azerbaijan:
“At that time it was impossible to find vegan substitutes on the market. I really love dairy so I really suffered, I even made my own cheese and yogurt at home. But I also understood that most vegans are under 25 and they don’t have time to spend all day in the kitchen. That’s why many people are hesitant to become vegetarians or vegans because they don’t have the time, or they don’t want to change their lives so drastically. I decided that something had to be done. Why couldn’t there be a vegetarian shop in Azerbaijan?! There are plenty in Georgia, Russia, Turkey, and Iran. At first I just hoped that someone would open one here, but when I saw that nothing was happening, I realized that I would have to do it myself.”
Once she made that decision, Vusala left the company where she worked and opened Azerbaijan’s first vegan shop. It wasn’t easy because close friends and family didn’t believe in her plan. They said Azerbaijan wasn’t ready for it, that you could count the number of vegans on one hand and so her business wouldn’t make a profit.
Vusala recalls that her friends and acquaintances were surprised when she opened the shop and often asked, “Are there really enough vegans in Azerbaijan?” Since she decided to only hire vegetarians and vegans to work there, at first it was hard for her to find staff. Now it’s become easier and there are people to choose from.
Still, according to Vusala, about 70% of the shop’s customers are people with a traditional diet:
“Most of the customers aren’t vegans because there aren’t enough in Azerbaijan, although there are a lot of vegetarians. I would say that over 60%, about 70% of our customers are people with a traditional diet. And that’s great because they can see that our shop is vegan from the name, they still come in. Vegans and vegetarians ask mostly for vegan cheese, milk, butter, sausages, hot dogs, ground meat, and other meat substitutes. Customers with a traditional diet are interested in gluten-free flour and items made with gluten-free flour, energy bars, various powders, seeds, and cold-pressed vegetable oils.”
Vusala tries to keep the prices at the shop low since most vegans in Azerbaijan are young people under 25, and also in order to dispel the myth that “it’s expensive to be vegan.”
One of the most serious problems at present is the delivery of vegan products to Azerbaijan. According to Vusala, many producers don’t send their products here because of low demand:
“Companies know that the situation in Azerbaijan isn’t great and these products won’t sell well. I spend a huge amount of time, energy, and resources negotiating with these companies and trying to convince them to establish at least some kind of export so that the market will develop and, in turn, motivate local companies to produce vegan products. Azerbaijan has enough resources, it’s entirely feasible. It’s just that producers have no motivation.”
What else do vegans care about?
Alp Aliyev started as a vegetarian and later transitioned to veganism. He doesn’t call people who abstain from meat but continue to use animal products vegans, he calls them “plant-based eaters”.
“Vegans should care about everything they use in their everyday lives – clothes, cosmetics, toothpaste, and brushes. Even entertainment. Some products may be made from vegan ingredients, but if they were tested on animals (this particularly concerns cosmetics) then they can’t be considered vegan. The whole point is to try not to harm animals.”
He says that recently the range of everyday vegan products has expanded, even if only slightly:
“Now you see products labeled as vegan, cruelty free, or with a picture of a mouse and a bunny in a heart, which means that the product is categorized as vegan.”
What do doctors say?
In an interview with Azertac, the chair of the Department of Nutrition and Communal Hygiene at Azerbaijan Medical University, Ibrahim Ahmadov, stated that one shouldn’t suddenly give up meat or meat products because they contain nutrients that are not found in plant products or, if they are, then in very small amounts:
“It’s important to eat meat because it’s a crucial factor in developing immunity and in repairing tissues and cells. In particular, the amino acids found in meat provide the body with protein. In addition it’s recommended to include fruits, vegetables, and dairy products in your diet.”
Ahmadov explains that certain types of vegetarianism are healthy for people suffering from certain conditions, but even in those cases they shouldn’t abstain entirely from meat – it’s better to merely limit the intake of certain foods and follow a special diet:
“The type of vegetarianism should be chosen according to the specifics of each particular individual. For example, if someone has atherosclerosis or arterial hypertension, they shouldn’t eat too much meat. If their acidity is elevated, vegetarianism can be beneficial. Vegetarianism can also be a remedy for gout and kidney stones. But in the case of cardiovascular diseases, liver pathologies, or impaired cerebral circulation, such an approach would be incorrect.
According to Ahmadov, vegetarianism is not recommended for people who are underweight, or for children and teenagers whose bodies are growing and developing.
According to an article published a few years ago in the American Medical Association’s journal
JAMA Internal Medicine
, a vegetarian diet may extend life.
According to the article, scientists at Loma Linda University did a study of 73,308 people, dividing them into five groups: those with a traditional diet, semi-vegetarians, pescatarians (who eat seafood), lacto-vegetarians (who eat dairy products and eggs), and vegans (who abstain from all animal products).
The results showed that among the people studied, those who lived the longest were vegans. Moreover, people from that group were more educated, more likely to have families, less likely to smoke and drink, exercised more, and tended to be thin.
The researchers added, however, that a direct link between these patterns and vegetarianism has yet to be definitively proven, and more research is necessary.
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